Thursday, April 3, 2008

Renting Off The Island, Into America Normal (How the Other Half Lives)

Eric Butler
Long Island, NY--Smithtown
September 2007
3-bdrm apt, occupied by two pre-meds and I

For a short while late last summer, I was a floater. New in the city, pursuing a career in a field I had no real experience in (graphic design--that's just how I roll), I set about grabbing at any job that would have me. For the last two days of August, I let a Gucci-shaded kindergarten teacher pay me $150 to help set up her classroom for the coming school year.

The next day I was on a train to Long Island.

It was an office gig, refitting thousands of old business coupons to a new design template for direct-marketing catalogs. Nine hours a day I sat in a squat, sprawling office park on the outskirts of Hicksville (yep, real name), ignoring my coworkers, staring out the window, put the logo here, font goes Helvetica Bold, tighten the leading, italicize the tagline, save, print, repeat. The new coupons looked just as bad as the old ones; the money that companies paid for this service was money down the drain. But that's where I started. It was a month-long project, I was making $18 an hour, and subletting a small bedroom in a comfortable apartment in Smithtown's Avalon Commons apartment complex, two hours and three modes of transportation away.

It was the closest apartment I could get.

I found the place, as we all do, on But searching for sublets on Long Island is a very different experience than doing so for Manhattan. First off, there aren't nearly as many listings--and most are sprinkled along the coastline as easy options for quick Gothamite getaways. But worse is that without a car, you're restricted to places along the carotid artery of the LIRR train system. A week prior to the move I spent hours a day triangulating between craigslist, Google Maps and the MTA website, praying that somehow one apartment could harmonize across the board. One did, kind of. And it was nudging up to September. So I called.

Brandon turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. He charged me $600, no security, no big deal, he was a doctor-in-training and had been assigned to St. Luke's in the Upper West Side. Instead of leaving his room empty, he put it up. When I got there, he'd typed up a sheet of helpful information for me, gave me a little tour of the place in his car, was nothing but smiles. Away he went. Have a nice time.

Only problem was, I said the place "kind of" worked because, well, it wasn't actually anywhere near the office park. In the spirit of being a floater, there lies a fundamental need to embrace circumstances. MapQuest will tell you that the space between Avalon and the office is 18 miles; travel time, 25 minutes. The job started at 9 a.m.--but I was out my door before 7. Because from the apartment I had to walk a mile and a half, literally to the opposite end of Smithtown, to beat the 7:18 LIRR to the station. Most days, slow out of bed, I'd wind up speed-walking the whole way, in an awful mall-walker fashion that stung my stomach on two levels. One very late morning I honestly had to run the full stretch, in dress clothes, backpack on, choking for air, horribly out of shape. While I was still across the street I heard the train whistle blowing. Commence dead-sprint, followed by dry heaves. See, if I didn't make the 7:18 I literally couldn't get to work until 10:30. Think about that for a second. That's immigrant-level difficulty. But then, that's exactly what I was.

The LIRR got me to Hicksville at 8 a.m., but the bus that took me the rest of the way didn't leave until 8:30. Another half-hour ride later, I arrived at my desk. The trip was the same going back, although I got off work at 5 and the LIRR didn't leave until 6:50. I usually got home around 8.

So 13 hours, round-trip.

Funny thing was, I kind of enjoyed the experience. I read something like 800 pages in transit. The LIRR makes subway cars feel like hay-strewn truck beds. And it was always dawn or dusk when I walked. Smithtown itself was kind of cute, and few things were ever open during those book-ended hours. When I turned off the main road it fell silent. There were crickets. I could look up and see stars. The sky was black instead of that polluted urban burgundy. The last leg of the walk was through this crispy, rabbit-strewn field behind a static, glowing CVS Pharmacy. As far as suburban nostalgia goes, it doesn’t get much more visceral than this.

And the apartment was a perfect match for the experience. In a cubicle all day, come home to a clean, furnished, prefab apartment unit, the same as every other unit in the complex, gas grills, cable TV, an indoor gym and weight room in the common area--as basic and American as milk. For the month of September I rented out of the city and into the new American standard. That’s the great thing about subletting: your location becomes your perspective, your perspective becomes your identity, and for a month's rent you can transform into someone else for a little while. It’s just too bad that Brandon took all his clothes with him. You know, I’ve always wanted to become a doctor.

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